How Marriage Can Too Come Before Work

Wife with rose greets sailor.

Put your marriage before everything else.

If you've ever attended a marriage seminar, marriage counseling or read a marriage book, you've likely stumbled across this advice. Put your marriage before your children, your friends and your work, they say.

It's great advice ... for everyone else. But for Must-Have and Must-Do Parents, is this even possible?

We are MHPs because our spouses have these mega-jobs, these time-and-life devouring occupations that have caused us to take on super-sized portions of parenting out of necessity.

They have jobs that may make it impossible for them to control how they use their time. They have life-or-death jobs, high stakes, now-not-later jobs. How can someone in a job like that choose to put his or her marriage first and stick with it?

Bird by bird, that's how.

Anne Lamott, a writer I adore, says that she remembers when her 10-year-old brother was in tears over a massive school project that required him to catalog a large collection of birds. Her father sat down beside her brother and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

It's good advice for most everything in life.

If we view "put your marriage first" as an absolute commandment that must be done, wholly and completely, without mistake, every day of our lives, we set ourselves and our spouses up for failure. But if we see the aspects of our marriage as a series of "birds," it's much more doable. We do them bird by bird.

Those Must-Do parents are at work because they are already putting their family first. There are plenty of things they'd rather be doing than working. To saddle them with guilt over missed events and gestures would be beyond unfair.

So instead we, the MHPs, look for small specific pieces of marriage to emphasize, preferably things that will take less than an hour and, ideally, will be fun. 

Here's how we do bird by bird in my house:

Date nights can easily become date-nightmares for us. For us to have a simple dinner and a movie out, I have to start planning several weeks in advance. For a natural born non-planner like me, that means it's already not worth it.

With three kids and babysitters who charge $5 per kid per hour, by the time we've had a nice (but not extravagant) meal, tried to stay awake long enough to see a movie through to the credits and paid the sitter, we've easily spent $200. And a $200 price tag makes it hard for any meal or movie to seem worth it, so we rarely do date nights.

Instead, we do lunch.

We meet at a restaurant while the kids are in school -- no sitter required! -- and order off the lunch menu, which is usually cheaper, anyway.

We get an hour of undisturbed, kid-free connection for about $25. A total bargain. Sometimes, we even have a picnic.

We've also met for CrossFit workouts at lunchtime. We don't talk much while we're working out-- natch -- but just looking over and seeing each other trying hard and lifting heavy stuff is bonding. Afterward, we commiserate via text message about how hard the workout was.

At 8 p.m each night -- religiously -- we turn into nightclub bouncers. ("You don't have to go to sleep, but you can't stay in the living room!")

Our children's bedtime is non-negotiable. Any minute past 8 p.m. is couple time in our house and we guard that time.

On those nights when we both have to spend those evening hours working, we set our laptops across from each other on the kitchen table and make jokes about sinking each other's battleships.

We call, text and email throughout the day, sharing funny pictures and silly things we heard.

In other words, we take each day one bird at a time, putting our marriage first the best way we know how.

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Family and Spouse Marriage